Period health: Why your menstrual cycle is your fifth vital sign

  • Health
  • October 16, 2020

Our menstrual cycle has a direct connection to our overall health, yet many of us know surprisingly little about the intrinsic link between our period health and our wellbeing. As an expert guest on our podcast Taboo, Integrative Chinese medicine practitioner, Dr Amanda Waaldyk, of Angea, explains how to read this ‘fifth vital sign’. 

From painful periods to underlying medical conditions, our menstrual cycle can provide a deeper understanding of what’s going on beneath the surface when it comes to our overall health. To find out more, we spoke to Dr Amanda Waaldyk, founder of Angea Women’s Health Clinic, about how and why we should pay close attention to our menstruation. 

Understanding our ‘fifth vital sign’

“Our menstrual cycle is everything when it comes to women’s health,” says Amanda. “It’s our barometer to understanding our bodies and, most importantly, our overall health.” Our menstrual cycle can be thought of as our fifth vital sign, along with our body temperature, blood pressure, respiratory rate, and heart rate. It can tell us what is happening in our bodies physically, and whether there are any underlying medical conditions that need to be addressed. 

“The first thing we learn in Chinese medicine is that the health of your menstrual cycle is absolutely everything for a woman, particularly if you’re wanting to start a family,” says Amanda. “If something isn’t right, we need to work out what’s going on – why are you having heavy periods? How is your polycystic ovarian syndrome influencing your overall health in terms of metabolism and weight gain? Our menstrual cycle is reflective in all parts of our body, from our skin, to our internal organs, to our endocrine system, to our metabolic rate. It really is our fifth vital sign.”

What’s healthy and what isn’t?

A missed or irregular period is an opportunity to really look into your health and find why this is happening, whether it is a result of a hormonal imbalance or something else. “Most women will tend to bleed anywhere from two to seven days,” says Amanda. “For anything outside of seven days, we need to investigate further.” Some menstrual issues can lead to, or be a sign of, other health conditions. For example, amenorrhea – at least three missed periods in a row – can result in estrogen deficiency, which can then contribute to osteoporosis. Oligomenorrhea, a menstrual cycle length of greater than 35 days, can indicate the possibility of polycystic ovarian syndrome.

How much discomfort is normal? If you’re experiencing painful periods, known as dysmenorrhea, there may be something else going on, says Amanda. A little bit of dull cramping on the first day of your cycle is normal as the endometrial lining begins to shed, however if you’re experiencing nausea, vomiting, fainting, or having to take pain medication, there might be an underlying medical condition. “Painful periods are not normal,” says Amanda.  

What our menstrual blood colour can tell us 

The colour of your menstrual blood can also reveal a lot about your health. “We have a whole range of different blood colours,” says Amanda. “A light pink will indicate blood deficiency from a traditional Chinese medicine perspective, but can also indicate anaemia or an iron deficiency.” Ideally, your menstrual blood will be a fresh red colour, without clots and occurring in a consistent flow. A darker red can point to blood stagnation within the womb, which will sometimes be accompanied with period pain. 

“A darker colour can mean the blood stagnation is penetrating into the reproductive organs, which we see a lot of the time with endometriosis,” says Amanda. Purple periods often suggest deep, deep stagnation within your womb and in your uterus. “This is normally accompanied with really intense pain and heavy periods, which is indicative of fibroids, adenomyosis or endometriosis,” she says. If you’re experiencing black periods, a sign of congealed blood, Amanda recommends working integratively with a doctor to investigate the cause. 

Your period blood can reveal a lot about your health

Listening to your body for answers

“I feel as though there’s a period revolution happening when women are becoming more informed about their bodies and really starting to understand their menstrual cycle,” says Amanda. Paying close attention to our periods – making note of the length, consistency and colour of our bleeding, as well as the amount of pain we experience – can help us to identify the signs and symptoms that reflect broader health issues. “Check in with your body every day and do an internal inventory,” says Amanda. “Ask yourself, how’s my flow?” 

Dr. Amanda Waaldyk is the Founder of Angea Women’s Health Clinic in Melbourne, an integrative acupuncture clinic specialising in supporting women through fertility, pregnancy and beyond. You can learn more about Angea by visiting their website, or following the clinic on Instagram